Priority for the poorest

In today’s Gospel reading, Mark records that a leper came to Jesus and “kneeling down begged him and said, ‘If you wish, you can make me clean.'”

“Moved with pity,” Jesus stretched out his hand, touched the leper, and said to him, ‘I do will it. Be made clean.’

In this context, it’s interesting to recall the words of a former French JOC leader, Joseph Wresinski, who became a priest and later the founder of a movement dedicated to the very poorest, the Third World living in the First World, or the “Fourth World.”

This movement is now known as ATD-Quart Monde or ATD-Fourth World and works to empower the poorest and most excluded.

In a 1987 speech entitled “God’s rights, human rights,” Fr Wresinski explained the vision of his movement:

Throughout human history, God himself has established a priority to the poorest. God has always demanded of his people that they honour and protect the poorest amongst his children and respect them. But his people did not listen to Him. 

In the past, the Jewish people did what we ourselves are doing today. They created a society where some people had knowledge, wealth, and power, while others learned little, gained little, and had nothing to say. These people lived in poverty. However, below them there were the poorest: despised, rejected, and counted for nothing. 

In Israel there were slaves, both Gentiles and Jews. However, the Law of Moses permitted that Jewish slaves be set free after six years of servitude. But there was worse than slavery, for, in the name of religion, the Jewish people established a worse condition of servitude, without recourse, without possible redemption. These people, who had no means of appeal, were the men and women who were declared impure because of their trade or their infirmity. Such were the shepherds looking after the flocks of their masters, those possessed by demons, the lepers, and the tax collectors. All such people were judged irredeemable just as those who today are living on what they can recover from trash bins or rubbish dumps. In the same way, other people are judged as undesirables in our cities: families who have not learned to live in modem apartments and families who never have the means to pay their rent. Similarly, they are regarded as untouchables, like these mothers who because of extreme poverty have been forced into prostitution in the ports of big European cities in order to feed their children. 

Thus, in Israel, many of God’s children were despised, often from father to son. But in worse conditions still were the homeless people and beggars who sometimes formed gangs of criminals in Jerusalem, like the good and the bad thieves: “the dregs of the population,” as described by the historian Josephus; “society’s refuse,” as we might say today. 

So what became of God’s love for the poorest? How could the poorest still love God when it was in the name of religion that they were despised? How could they love their neighbour, excluded as they were from the rest of the people? The Right of God to be loved and to see all of his children equally respected and loved was rendered null and void. Through humiliation and disenfranchisement, and by denying them responsibilities, rights, or freedom, the Jewish people denied the Right of God. Through the poorest people in Israel, just as through the families of the Fourth World today, we see that we cannot talk about people without talking about God. To humiliate a person is to humiliate God. 

It was to put an end to this intolerable humiliation of the poorest and of himself that God caused his son to be born. He caused him to be born where the children of unclean parents were born, whether they were shepherds, bandits, or the destitute roaming about the roads. In his son, God invested all that he could offer that was most precious; his son, the saviour of the world. He invested his own son where people were the most humiliated. Through him, God himself assumed the condition of the outcast; he himself became an outcast. He did so in order that no one could ever question his will that all people be recognised as his children and that they receive the rights that ensue. 

In this way God not only proclaims, but re-establishes his justice. He reminds people that they have to invest the most precious thing they own, their whole self, amongst the poorest. This is what Jesus did. He shared his divine and his human nature amongst the poorest. This is the very mystery of the Mass which we celebrate every day. Jesus takes things upon himself; he lives out before our eyes the justice he rendered first of all to the most unwanted people.

Let us then reflect on the message of Fr Wresinski and today’s Gospel in our own lives and communities.


Who are the poorest of the poor in our own communities? Who are those regarded today as irredeemable or untouchable? Who are the despised?


In light of God’s love for the poorest and most despised, what is our responsibility today?


Think of a concrete action that could you could take to make a difference.


Stefan Gigacz


Joseph Wresinski, God’s rights, human rights (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library)

ATD Fourth World